Is That You, John Wayne? Is This Me?

Paper by Samuel Arnold.

As the film industry chugged through the second half of the 1980’s, two films of a unique and emerging genre competed with one another for critical acclaim and box office success. The 1986 film Platoon , and its 1987 competitor, Full Metal Jacket , were released a decade after the end of the conflict in Vietnam. Up until the war in Afghanistan, the Vietnam War had been the longest, and was one of the most controversial conflicts in the history of the United States. Nearly a dozen years after its end, it gave rise to a new genre of the 1980’s, Vietnam War films. In modern times, there is no arguing the popularity and merit of these two films, but as they were released, one rose to massive acclaim while the other seemed to falter. It can be evidenced that the styles used by the directors affected the perception of the message of the films, and ultimately decided their box office outcome. What is it that made these two honest films so different from one another?
What first must be addressed is the measure of each film’s financial and critical success in the 1980’s. Platoon was produced on a six million dollar budget, grossed $138.5 million, earned a total of four Academy Awards; and sparked the careers of famed actors such as Tom Berenger, Willem Dafoe, Johnny Depp, Charlie Sheen, and Forest Whitaker (IMDB). Full Metal Jacket , following suit and released only five months after Platoon , was produced on a $30 million budget and could’ve been predicted to exceed its predecessor (IMDB). While not a failure, the film still fell short of living up to its hype. It managed to turn a profit by grossing $46 million, but was nominated for only one Academy Award, and brought milder success to much less heralded actors such as Vincent D’Onofrio, R. Lee Ermey, and Matthew Modine (IMDB). Both films had large budgets to work with, talent in their casts, and highly respected directors,
Platoon by Oliver Stone, and Full Metal Jacket by Stanley Kubrick. However, it was the subtle manipulations by Stone and Kubrick that the films’ box office success, and eventual lore hinged upon.

Today, both films stand apart not just from Vietnam War films, but apart from all war films for their sheer realism. In the case of Stone, one must note the obvious level of expertise he had on the matter of reality in combat. Prior to the war in Vietnam, Stone was a student at Yale University, dropping out in 1965 and working odd jobs or writing until 1967, when he volunteered for service in the U.S. Army (The Oliver Stone Experience). In American Film: A History , Jon Lewis further explains that the film’s main character, Chris Taylor, is based off of Stone’s service in the Army in 1967-1968, where he saw action in Vietnam (Lewis, 377). He served in the infantry, was twice wounded, and received a Bronze Star for valor in combat (Lewis, 376). In the documentary A Tour of the Inferno , Stone discusses “wanting to know what reality is like”, and volunteering for the war (A Tour of the Inferno). His feelings and life-story are captured in the scene from Platoon , where Chris is forced to burn excrement from the latrines, he explains that he dropped out of college and volunteered for the Army: “Why should just the just poor kids go off to war”. He is prompted “You volunteered for this shit?!” Chris merely replies “Can you believe it?” (Platoon). Stone’s time overseas set the tone for the film’s production. He had expertise in the genre of war, and he was going to prove it.

Stone’s emphasis on capturing the reality down to the most painstaking detail was driven into the film. He wrote the script for the film solely on his experiences from the war, and not wanting to miss anything, he worked with military advisors and plunged the cast into the film’s own version of basic training (A Tour of the Inferno). For two weeks, the actors engaged in a crash course of forced marches, learned combat doctrine, slept in foxholes, and ate military rations; all under the watchful eye of Stone and his advisor, retired Marine captain and fellow Vietnam veteran, Dale Dye (A Tour of the Inferno). After “basic training” was finished, Stone immediately and literally marched the cast and crew into the jungle to begin filming. This was done to fully immerse the cast into the dismal conditions of an infantryman in an attempt to sap their spirits, and further enhance the glum realities of war (A Tour of the Inferno). Stone was intently focused on capturing the nuances to further drive the realism home: a scene where Chris runs to the resupply helicopter shirtless, actor Charlie Sheen wanted to re-shoot because the debris from the helicopter’s rotor wash hurt his skin, Stone merely replied “What are you? A little pussy? Shoot it with your shirt off” (A Tour of the Inferno). Some of the actors reminisced that as Stone’s or Dye’s unrelenting attention to detail bore down on them, they noticed that when one of the veterans finally elicited the performance out of the actor that they were looking for, they could see the veteran was silent and lost in flashbacks (A Tour of the Inferno). Stone pursued accuracy down to the most minute detail, relying on his memories to craft a masterpiece.

While Stone had insider knowledge, how did Stanley Kubrick, who did not serve in the military or see combat, extract such realism? Lewis points out that Kubrick achieved this great realism through the demand of perfection, even more so than Stone; but also via cunning exploitation of space through his mastery of working as a photographer during his youth (Lewis, 310). His pressing urge to get the perfect image has the effect of fully immersing the viewer into the plot of the film itself. Lewis goes on to note that Kubrick’s exceptional work with musical scoring serves to enhance the visual cues that he strove to perfect, and further pushes the viewer into a sense of reality rather than film (Lewis, 310). The opening minutes of Full Metal Jacket
illustrate Lewis’ point: the scene is a close-up of recruits sitting in silence, getting their heads shorn at the very beginning of basic training, the camera zoomed in on their somber faces as the soundtrack plays a wailing and ominous premonition of their futures, the lyrics ringing out “Goodbye sweetheart, hello Vietnam” (Full Metal Jacket). With the audio and visual firmly under his control, Kubrick coerced the remaining realism into his movies through his molding of the actors.

One of the final tweaks of Kubrick’s quest for realism in Full Metal Jacket may have actually happened by accident. While he did have a brief acting history, R. Lee Ermey, who played the sadistic Gunnery Sergeant Hartman, was never intended to act in the film (Clark). For Full Metal Jacket, Ermey had been hired as a technical advisor, but “Ermey had a demo film made of him railing at a group of actors who were hoping to get in the movie”, then showed the video to Kubrick, and “Kubrick saw the demo. The rest is history” (Clark). While the recruits are subjected to the diabolic nature of their senior drill instructor, he provides a catalyst for the element so often included in Kubrick’s work, but had truly remained missing for the beginning of the film. Lewis notes the previously absent element, violence, as a hallmark of Kubrick’s work, and it is not until Hartman pushes Pvt. Pyle beyond his breaking point that we fully see the final distinction of Kubrick’s flair come to life in Full Metal Jacket (Lewis, 312). This is evidenced when Pyle shoots Hartman at the close of the film’s first half. Kubrick uses slow motion, coupled with his classical upward facing camera angle to show the jettison of blood from Hartman’s chest as he dies, bringing the first instance of bloodshed into the film. The repetition of carefully controlled angles mixed with musical scoring, slow motion, and the smattering of violence proceeds through the rest of the film, and conveys the stringent reality of life in Vietnam. Even lacking the experience overseas, Kubrick fabricates a story that is entirely too believable.

For me, the films are too believable, and they resonate far too well with my own perceptions of war. I feel that I possess a unique outlook with which to analyze both films from. My perspective is somewhat of a hybrid, a combination of projections of characters Chris Taylor and Joker. I didn’t grow up wealthy and attend an Ivy League university, but I left college after one year and enlisted in the Marine Corps. I’ve sat in the barber chairs and had my head shaved, knowing my ultimate fate lay in Afghanistan, the Vietnam of my generation. Serving in the infantry, I deployed on two tours to Helmand Province, Afghanistan. Over the course of the war, Helmand became the province responsible for more coalition casualties than any other province. I can empathize with Chris, and even Oliver Stone, as Chris narrates while slogging along on patrol “New Year’s Day, 1968. Just another day. Staying alive” (Platoon). I know Chris’ sentiments, time becomes finite as the tour grinds on. You simply view the days as a dwindling number, surviving one day at a time until it’s over, and do your best to see yourself to that point.
While overseas, if back in the semi-safe confines of our outpost, and if our spontaneous source of electricity was working, my buddies and I would crowd around a dusty laptop and watch films from our cramped sandbagged hut. One of my best friends and I, whom has an affinity for film and film studies, often re-watched both of these films. We discussed comparisons of characters to real men in our platoon. Aside from viewing the films overseas, we’d also view them stateside. Most recently we reunited over Thanksgiving of 2016, and wound up viewing both films. We’ve always postulated the works of both films, meanings behind the
plots, and why Full Metal Jacket was less heralded than Platoon . Our discussions are the inspiration for why I believe the two films had been received so differently.

One of the first distinctions we’ve addressed was the format of both films. Platoon follows the traditional three-act series, whereas Full Metal Jacket occurs in two separate halves. We’ve noted how this may impact the audience, it seems to be separate yet overlapping stories. Acclaimed film critic paid notice to this, remarking that the film is “more like a book of short stories than a novel” (Ebert). Ebert even went on to describe the film’s plot as”strangely shapeless” (Ebert). My friend and I have discussed how Kubrick’s work is focused more on the dehumanization of soldiers and duality of man, rather than the war itself. This is entertained by Joker, precisely so as he speaks to the colonel while covering the massacre outside of Hue City. Joker addresses this “duality of man” and “the Jungian thing, sir” (Full Metal Jacket). This point is further manifested by Gordon Dahlquist “Joker’s WHOLE EXISTENCE, from the beginning of the film to the point where he kills the sniper, is all about denying, abstracting, ironizing, distancing the duality within him” (The Kubrick Site). My friend and I have taken this belief to a deeper meaning, hypothesizing that Animal Mother is a hidden representation of this duality. We’ve theorized that Pyle never actually killed himself, nor Gy. Sgt. Hartman, and that it was all dreamt by Joker. We’ve noticed that the nighttime beating of Pyle, and the shooting in the latrine were filmed under a blue hue; while the other scenes filmed at night lack this shading, and any scene with the blue shade was merely Joker’s dream. Based on the duality and Joker’s dreams, it is our further belief that Pyle is transformed into a later character, Animal Mother, Hartman foreshadowing this transformation to Pyle at an inspection “you are definitely born again hard” (Full Metal Jacket). Mark Ervin agrees with our theory “I see a deliberately chosen resemblance between Pyle and Animal Mother: black hair, large stature, constantly half-open eyes, and the same false grin” (The Kubrick Site). With so much confusion and open interpretation about the plot itself, it begins to become clear as to why the film was perceived differently from that of Platoon.

Lastly, I believe that the release of both films were too subsequent to one another, and had an impact on Full Metal Jacket ’s praises. The gripping reality of the warfare in Platoon was realistically unprecedented. For the first time since the war’s end, it forced the public to come to terms with what our troops had experienced. Disregarding the previous violence in the film, the best examples surface as the film roars to its conclusion. As Chris’ and the platoon’s positions
are being overwhelmed by waves of North Vietnamese soldiers, we see an enemy sapper race into the command bunker and detonate the satchel charges strapped to his torso, annihilating himself and the American force’s chain of command (played by Oliver Stone). In danger of being completely overrun, Captain Harris (played by Dale Dye) informs the air support “Be advised, we’ve got zips in the wire down here” and requests that the aircraft drop their payload of scorching napalm and thousands of pounds of high explosives on the American positions in order to stop the onslaught of the North Vietnamese (Platoon). After acknowledging that he must drop ordnance on his own men, and himself, in order to save them all, Harris simply remarks to the pilot over the radio “it’s a lovely fucking war. Bravo Six, out” and hunkers down in anticipation of the imminent destruction (Platoon). The men of the platoon from the ensuing scenes are soon awash with red and orange as the platoon is engulfed under Captain Harris’ orders. Harsh scenes, such as these, were gripping and won accolades for Platoon , but their counterparts in Full Metal Jacket came too quickly after Platoon . The wounds of the war were still fresh from Platoon , and the quick follow-up violence of Full Metal Jacket served as salt in that wound.

Made with great authenticity, both films represent classic works in the war film genre to this day. Were it not for the stunning success of Platoon , which had the benefit of being released slightly earlier, the hype for Full Metal Jacket would not have been so great. Given that Full Metal Jacket also received poor reviews, mainly in regard to its somewhat confusing and abnormal plot, and that its realistic violence and depravity exacerbated the freshly induced American sentiment on the war in Vietnam by its predecessor; it can be seen why the film couldn’t quite match the buzz created for it by Platoon , and was considered a mild cinematic flop in the 1980’s.

Works Cited:
A Tour of the Inferno: Platoon Revisited. Charles Kiselyak, Jeff McQueen. MGM Home Entertainment, 2001. DVD.
“About Me”. The Oliver Stone Experience . NKD. Web. 7 April, 2017.
Clark, Doug. “‘Gunny’ has a terrifying bark, but he won’t bite”. The Spokesman-Review . 31
August, 2010. Web. 11 April, 2017.
Ebert, Roger. “Full Metal Jacket”. RogerEbert.com . 26 June, 1987. Web. 12 April, 2017.
“Full Metal Jacket”. Internet Movie Database . 2017. Web. 8 April, 2017.
Full Metal Jacket. Stanley Kubrick. Warner Brothers, 1987. DVD.
Lewis, Jon. American Film: A History. W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. New York, 2008. Print. “Platoon”. Internet Movie Database. 2017. Web. 8 April, 2017.
Platoon. Oliver Stone. MGM Home Entertainment, 1986. DVD
“The Jungian Thing: Duality in Full Metal Jacket”. The Kubrick Site . 2014. Web. 9 April, 2017.

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